by Sonja Graham, Managing Partner
7 min read
A new future for fashion is urgently needed. For me - and I’m sure many others - this pandemic has really hit home the sheer injustice of how badly workers across the world are served by the big businesses and billionaire owners they work so hard to create wealth for. This has been particularly stark for the world of fast fashion, where the chain of exploitation by some retailers has been laid bare for all to see. It’s a story where the self-interest of a few harms the lives of millions, and as we recover from Covid-19, I urge those with influence, those in government, and those at the top of the food chain themselves to get back to the drawing board – and put women and children first.
“70% off lockdown sale!” : Exploitation of workers by billionaires
When the crisis hit, clothing companies in the US and UK immediately cancelled £ms of orders showing little concern for the workers upon whose labour their wealth was built. Hundreds of thousands of Bangladeshi garment workers were left with no income and no social safety net to fall back on. Their extremely low wages make ‘earning their way out of poverty’ impossible in normal times.
In the same breath, many retailers launched mega sales in their western markets to protect profits - directly putting the health of their employees, delivery and logistics workers at risk. Staff in the UK warehouse of Boohoo and Pretty Little Thing reported packing 400,000 items a week (bigger than the Christmas peak) in conditions that made social distancing impossible. Whilst thousands around the country were volunteering to deliver medicines and food to the vulnerable, fashion billionaires made workers load vans with ‘lockdown loungewear’. They could have created vital delivery capacity supporting food banks and pharmacies. They could have given staff paid time off to be safe at home with their families. They could have donated £1m to support their workers in Bangladesh (equivalent to someone with £1,000 in savings donating £1 to charity). Instead, these billionaires launched sales to boost profits.
“7 social distancing occasions and what to wear for them” : Increasing anxiety at a time of crisis
The last few months have been a bundle of anxiety for many. One slight let up to this has been that people have enjoyed reduced pressure to look good – a small ray of light in a hailstorm of anxiety. Not so sunny for fast-fashion retailers though.
The fashion industry heaps appearance pressures on young girls in particular; reinforcing stereotypes that looks are the most important thing about them. As one 14-year-old girl we spoke to so succinctly put it:
“The advertisers feel they need to make us feel insecure so that we buy their things”.
This pressure, now amplified through the social comparison worm-hole that is social media, has resulted in 61% of 17-21 year olds feeling that they need to be perfect when it comes to appearance. Even the names of the brands (e.g. Pretty Little Thing) depict an outdated notion of what a young woman should aspire to be.
So how to restore this apparent lapse in appearance angst? Exploit the home as a new place to have to look good. “New stuff to stay in in” in order to “look unreal” was touted on Boohoo’s website. “7 social distancing occasions and what to wear for them” was the headline of a Topshop blog, mirrored by almost all who pushed “loungewear” lines. Fashion advertising, whilst focusing heavily on the concepts of self-worth and empowering women, hides the reality of an industry that is creating, then exploiting, young girls’ insecurities. It’s bad to be adding to anxiety at the best of times, shockingly poor when there is a global pandemic to be anxious about.
“Looks for your lunchtime lockdown stroll” : Look at the clothes, focus on the clothes, just don’t look at our natural world and suddenly want to protect it
COVID-19 seems to have led to something of an environmental awakening across the world. Outdoor-time rationing and an enforced slow-down for many has led to a new appreciation of our natural world. 65% of people across 12 countries want governments to prioritise climate change in economic recovery plans and according to Google Trends, search interest in “how to live a sustainable lifestyle” increased by more than 4,550% over a 90 day period.
If this concern translates into consumer behaviour then fast fashion may just find itself, well, out of fashion. The industry in general has a huge environmental toll and fast fashion is the major culprit – producing more carbon emissions than international aviation and shipping combined, responsible for c.35% of microplastics found in the ocean and polluting and depleting entire seas worth of water.
If public attitudes have shifted to prioritise businesses that value and protect our natural world then a slightly less chemically, less water and carbon intensive version of fast fashion isn’t going to cut it. If fast fashion brands continue to churn out hundreds of new lines per week, no amount of energy efficiency or recycling can make this production volume fit within planetary boundaries – something ignored by current industry initiatives like the Fashion Pact.
“Ladies - dress to boss Zoom” : Let’s cut the crap about fast fashion empowering anyone but men
The pandemic has re-ignited the gender equality conversation in the UK with statistics on child-care bias and work sacrifices made by women coming to the fore. With a few notable exceptions – like the female dominated nexus I operate in – sustainability meets charity – most sectors are a considerable way off equal, but fashion takes the biscuit. Roughly 85% of all garment workers are women and pressures to look good are aimed disproportionately at young girls. But it is men who direct this trade and profit from it. According to a survey by Business of Fashion, only 14% of major brands are led by a female executive. The likes of Topshop owner, Philip Green, Boohoo founder and Nasty Gal owner - Mahmud Kamani, and his son Umar Kamani, owner of Pretty Little Thing are certainly doing well out of women’s labour and girls’ insecurities. With social justice and gender equality coming out as major themes of this last few months I hope that the predictions of a consumer backlash against companies focusing on owner wealth rather than worker parity and health do come true.
“No one is going to care if I'm in the same hoodie for a week” : Opportunity for change
A recent consumer survey by Opinium found that many more people were turning away from fashion and beauty companies than tuning in to them. When Jameela Jamil posted online to ask people if their grooming habits had changed one 19 year-old from New Zealand summed it up with:
“I wear the same few things, because no one is going to care if I'm in the same hoodie for a week”.
We will always need clothes, and most of us do want more than 1 utilitarian outfit to wear day in day out so I’m not suggesting we do away with the industry. I’d just like to see an industry that truly served the many women and young people it employs and markets to. Instead of exploiting young girls’ insecurities to create a market for endless new lines that last three wears, one that helps young women develop an individual style with quality clothing that can be repaired or passed on. Imagine if retailers focused on creating garments that supported the pursuit of things known to bring us wellbeing - being outdoors, exercise, learning new skills, having new experiences etc. rather than purporting to create wellbeing through merely making us look good.
Fashion billionaires, if you are listening, now is a critical time to respond to the environmental and social concerns that are taking hold. To build-back-better by supporting wellbeing across your value chain - from sustainable livelihoods in your factories to product marketing that celebrates the amazing things women achieve in your clothes not just how they look in them.
Governments please ensure that billionaires do create a fairer future. Don’t allow companies like Boohoo to get away with not disclosing the factories they use - ensure transparency and accountability for the lives and ecosystems they impact. Restrict the wild west of online advertising that targets young people with manipulative advertising reducing their worth down to what they wear. Work out absolute limits to the resources we can take from the earth each year for clothes and create a regulatory and fiscal environment that makes design for re-use and recycling imperative. Then perhaps designers and fashion-followers can make fashion joyful again.
Everyone else, let’s heed UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres when he said we must use the pandemic as a wake-up call "to do things right for the future" - let’s remember how fast-fashion brands supported their workers wellbeing in this pandemic and when next tempted to buy their latest wares/wears, support them accordingly (see links below)!
How to get involved:
Share your views – Global Action Plan are currently conducting research on our relationship with fashion and in particular interviewing mothers and daughters together to hear their views on what they are concerned about and what they want from fashion. Click here to take part in the survey.
Fight unfair exploitation of workers - Help drive change in the fashion industry through campaigns for Garment workers' rights through the Clean Clothes Campaign or Labour Behind the Label. Also look at Lost Stock, selling clothing orders cancelled by high street brands to get money to factory workers in Bangladesh.
N.B. for those interested in reading more about the impacts fashion has on people and planet have a browse through the incredible glossary that Condé Nast has put together